Professoriblogissa otetaan kantaa yliopistojen ja tutkimuslaitosten ajankohtaisiin asioihin.17.5.2021
The Open University (OU), which opened in 1971, is the largest and one of the most successful in the UK (Note to Finnish readers: the OU is completely different to the Avoin Yliopisto in Finland, which offers access courses for adults aiming to increase their professional competence or reach university entrance level: in the UK, the OU is a degree-awarding university like any other, just uses different teaching methods: see open.ac.uk).
At its inception the OU pioneered the use of broadcast media and other remote learning tools (e.g. the telephone) in higher education. It has also moved with the times, replacing the involvement of the BBC as the main dissemination medium with the broader use of the internet in 2006, creating many innovations in interactive distance-learning, and also establishing world-class research programmes, notably in planetary sciences and space exploration.
What the OU pioneered was of course copied widely, whilst traditional universities everywhere maintained face-to-face teaching as their main educational format.
But in 2020, all universities were obliged to adapt rapidly to an entirely unforeseen set of circumstances. Almost all face-to-face courses had to be replaced by rapidly created online editions, and new ways were invented to maintain and intensify student-teacher, student-student and student-world interactions. Benchmarks of student progress had to be redefined and new methods of assessment implemented. Whilst the success of this rapid zoomification varied from institution to institution and from country to country, the net result was to make universities everywhere much more like the OU, whilst leaving the OU itself almost unaffected.
As universities gingerly plan what to do going forward, when the lockdowns are finally ended, the question remains: will the OU be special any more? Will its competitors have learned how to beat it at its own game, adding in a dose of face-to-face interactions that make student life so much more than just the sum total of study time and contact time with academic staff? It's obviously unwise to try to make predictions, but I will nevertheless try to offer some suggestions.
First to the OU itself: rather than fear the new competition, the OU needs to take the experience of 2020 as a major opportunity. With students everywhere having had a taste of remotely delivered education, where better to source it in future than from the experts with a half-century of experience? Even with the additional handicap of Brexit, the OU can easily expand its services globally, a process already well under way, tailoring them to the specific needs of students in different national 'markets'.
What about all the other universities? There is an obvious danger that, by adopting the approach of the OU, which is 50 years ahead of them all, it is they, the traditional universities, that will be beaten in the competition. This is especially the case in those countries, the UK especially, where students pay exorbitant fees just to study at any HE institution. If the OU offers a similar product, but at lower cost, carrying also the inherent flexibility that its programmes have been designed to be easily combined with paid employment, why would anyone choose the pricier johnny-come-lately alternatives? The answer has to be that the traditional universities must move away from trying to compete for mature and part-time students, and focus instead on school leavers who are the ones most in need of the away-from-home experience that campus life offers. Put crudely, universities will all offer a similar educational package, and will only be distinguished by which ones enable the best parties. Plus the best practical and emotional support services for those many students who stumble and fall in their first experience of living outside of their usual family surroundings, or who just need a small boost to their confidence, to enable them to thrive in a potentially harsh and unforgiving environment.
What does all this mean in the specific context of Finland and its universities? At least there is no serious competition yet from the OU or any others, for education in Finnish language, and at zero or very low direct cost to the consumer. However, English-language education is now an indispensible preparation for careers in science, engineering, media and communications, business and even, to some degree, the creative arts. Thus, the encroachment of the OU and its imitators in other countries could devalue a traditional university education in Finland, unless our universities take bold steps to buck such a trend. Most obviously they could ride that trend and offer online and hybrid courses in English language themselves. They can also work to make the social experience of being at college more attractive and safer. They already offer various kinds of emotional, psychological and practical student support. However, something is missing, compared with what I experienced as the norm in the anglo-saxon world, namely the intense and structured involvement of academic staff in this process.
Although some training is needed to make it work, it is usual for every student joining a university course in the UK to be assigned to a personal tutor or mentor from the academic staff; sometimes two or more, with different individuals focusing on advising students individually on the wisest and most appropriate choice of courses and modules, another handling student welfare, referring them where necessary to specialized counsellors, practitioners or assistance services. Of course there are always mismatches, although a measure of flexibility, combined with a visible staff diversity, helps students find sympathetic support where needed. And mature students also benefit from the kind of guidance that trained staff can offer.
In Finland, my experience is that these matters are either neglected, or handled in a way that doesn't involve the teaching staff. Even where students have well documented medical or psychological issues that need to be brought to the attention of academic staff, this is left all too frequently to the student themself to communicate, often with the greatest of difficulty or embarrassment.
Having academic staff take a direct, one-on-one and face-to-face role in steering students through all the obstacles of university life is one way that traditional universities can score over the less personal ethos of the OU and its ilk.
The Finnish universities also have the advantage of being the only ones that can easily provide access to the Finnish cultural experience, a subject I have dealt with before. But they can now steal a march on the competition by offering online English-language education, combined with individualized mentorship, plus the unique in-person experience of the rich Finnish social, literary and physical environment. Not just the best parties.
Professor of Molecular Biology, Tampere University
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